Bob Bicknell-Knight is an artist and curator working in installation, sculpture, video and digital media. Alongside his own work exploring “the divergent methods by which consumer capitailst culture permeates both online and offline society,” he is also the founder and director of isthisit?, an online platform for contemporary art. A practitioner well versed in the dealings of digital art, below Bob gives us a beginner’s guide to the medium of digital art and how digital artists can monetise their work.
Digital art, or new media art, has been slowly transforming how artists, curators, writers, collectors and institutions function within the industry. Everyone has a different definition of the term, although the simplest is that it is art which utilises digital technologies (a broad expression) as a primary method within the creative or presentation process. Technically, digital art has been around since the 1950s, when artists and designers began working with mechanical devices and analogue computers to create works of art. Today, an argument that usually appears when discussing digital art is that everyone making art right now, since the beginning of Web 2.0, is making new media art, due to everyone being influenced by both the internet and the machines that allow us to interact with the World Wide Web, created 30 years ago by Tim Berners-Lee. I like this notion, although not everyone enjoys having their work labelled as “digital art”.
I run a platform called isthisit?, through which I’ve collaborated with hundreds of artists working across various different mediums. If they’re London-based, I’ll usually visit their studio, speak to them about their work and how they afford to live in London. Some make money from selling their work, are being commissioned to make new work, or are being supported by their family. Most of the others are working part-time jobs, in galleries, bars and cafes, as nannies, Apple Store technicians, Deliveroo drivers, studio assistants, and everything in between.
Alongside making money from selling work, being commissioned to make new work, writing texts like the one you’re currently reading and giving talks, I also have two part-time jobs, as an art technician and a gallery manager. This is my main source of income and I wouldn’t be able to survive without it. Although the importance of the part-time job has no real relation to digital art in particular, I think it’s imperative to highlight them as a large part of an artist’s life, and how most young artists make money, even more so when making work with digital technologies.
As digital art is a relatively new medium compared to painting or drawing, it raises a lot of questions around how artists who work with digital technologies can make money. For example, it’s a lot harder to sell a video work than it is to sell a painting. Therefore, in this piece, I’ll be talking about artists who have physical and non-physical practices – the latter usually having a harder time selling their work – alongside my own experiences with commissioning, selling, pricing and editioning my own art. It’s important to bear in mind that everyone has their own distinctive way of dealing with these issues, so inevitably how I price and value my work will be different from your own.
Let’s begin by talking about video work and digital art that doesn’t usually have a physical form, like net art or digital imagery. This form of digital artwork is usually sold in duplicates or editions, due to them not being unique. When someone creates a painting it’s usually a unique piece, which, even if you were to paint the same image again, would have at least some visual differences between copies. As the digital artwork is usually a computer file, and easily copied, artists and galleries usually sell video work as an edition. Normally it’s an edition of three or five, but in some cases it can be more.
There’s usually an AP (artist proof), too, which allows the artist to keep a copy or two of the piece, to exhibit at gallery and museum shows, as well as being potentially sold later on, once all the editions are sold. Usually as the edition is sold, the price of each edition increases. For example, the first edition will be £100, the second £150 and the third £300. As the work becomes more popular and sought after, its price will rise. When pricing video work, the main areas to consider are exhibition history and length – the more shows you’ve had, and the longer the work is, usually equals a higher price. For famous digital artists like Ryan Trecartin or Sue de Beer, their work will be highly priced regardless of length.
Net art is more complex. In this instance, you’re selling a domain or code for the work, or sometimes a wireless router that houses the artwork. Issues of longevity and questions surrounding ownership come into play at this point – a larger discussion too deep to get into here. Digital imagery is a simpler issue, as artists will often create physical forms of these digital works, printed on aluminium Dibond, or on archival paper and displayed in handcrafted frames. For instance, the artist Joshua Citarella creates huge digital assemblages made using Photoshop, layering hundreds of appropriated images, and eventually printing the C-prints onto Dibond.
A few years ago, I commissioned a number of artists to create 3D digital models which were then turned into 3D-printed USB drives. When curating exhibitions, I would then use the drives to house other artists’ video work. I then subsequently began producing my own 3D USB drives, with each new video work I created having its own specific USB to be sold as a physical version of the digital artwork. Most digital artists make their own custom USB drives to contain their digital works, like Stine Deja or Molly Soda, and use it as a way of adding value to a work that is usually just a digital file.
It’s similar to how, even with the proliferation of e-readers, physical copies of books are still incredibly popular alongside vinyl records gaining a resurgence. People love to have physical objects and predominantly prefer them to non-physical items. If I spend money on an artwork, I want it to have a physical presence, to place it in my home, to see it every day and show it off to friends and family members when they come over. It feels like an odd idea, when so much of our life is dominated by non-physical experiences on the internet, to have such a reliance on physical objects when it comes to selling digital art.
It’s not always the case, however, that your digital work needs a physical form. Websites like Daata Editions and Sedition work with artists to commission and sell digital work over the internet. Daata specialises in commissioning artists, usually selling their work as an edition of 20, beginning at between $100 and $500 and slowly increasing in price as the work is sold. They hold events, go to art fairs and collaborate with galleries all over the world, promoting their digital artworks in physical settings. When you buy a work you receive the downloadable digital copy of the piece alongside a digital signed certificate of authenticity.
Sedition is a little different, offering artworks at a fairly low cost but with a higher number of editions, with the website storing purchased artworks in your “art vault” to be accessed only through their website and downloadable app. You can also resell your digital artwork on the platform. Selling an edition of 200 at £25 is very different to selling an edition of 5 for £1,000, with the pricing being dependant on who you want to cater for within the art market.
If you’re commissioned by a gallery or platform they will usually give you a certain amount of money to create a new artwork, although once sold you will receive a smaller percentage of the sale. When working with galleries, artists usually receive 50 per cent of the sale of an artwork with the other half going to the gallery, which covers everything from rent to paying staff. If you’ve been commissioned, it’s more likely that the gallery will receive 70-85 per cent of the sale, due to them providing you with an upfront fee with no assurance that the work will be sold.
The last point I’ll briefly touch upon is the importance of the certificate of authenticity when selling a digital work, as well as how you promote your artwork online. A certificate of authenticity is significant when selling any medium of art, although with digital art it becomes a vital document. It will usually contain the artist’s signature, the gallery directors if the work is being bought/sold through a gallery, the edition number and the name of the collector. This shows the digital work to be authentic as well as (hopefully) stopping someone from purchasing a digital artwork and sending copies of the file to anyone and everyone.
A lot of digital artists also choose not to post full versions of their work online, instead creating short trailers or uploading lower-quality versions, reserving the full, HD iterations for private Vimeo links and physical exhibitions. Some don’t, however, and post everything that they do. It’s ultimately up to the individual artist and how they want their work to be seen on the internet. Although, if they’re represented by a gallery, usually the work can’t be found online, with the exclusive work being held captive for collectors, art fairs and gallery or museum exhibitions.
So, as I stated in the beginning, every artist who works within digital art has unique and interesting ways of working with the medium, from creating immersive installations to facilitate the viewing of hour-long videos, to increasing the number of editions of a digital work to reduce the price. This is a very brief look, a sort of beginner’s guide, to the medium of digital art and how you may start to monetise your practice as a digital artist.